In a recent post I referred to an article by Michael Simmons that described research indicating that those in an open network are more likely to be successful than those in a closed network. Open meaning broad, big, growing and multi-functional. Closed meaning stagnant, insular and populated by a few like-minded people.
I contended that the conclusions from the research might be incorrect and there might be a cause and effect problem not considered. In my opinion the root cause – based on my assessment of more than 5,000 candidates – is that team skills are more likely the driver of success. A lack of them causes people to stay within a closed network and possessing them is the reason people get assigned to open networks.
If team skills are in fact this significant, the solution to career success is straightforward for anyone who wants to get ahead: Force yourself into situations in which you need to engage with a variety of people and the more cross-functional the better.
The process starts by asking candidates to describe the people on the teams and projects they worked on and how successful the teams were. Learning how and why they were assigned to these projects and the roles played is an indication of their strengths. This is especially true if these team projects and managerial roles continue to grow at different companies with different leaders.
For example, techies won’t be assigned to work on important product marketing teams if they don’t understand the design issues from the perspective of the end user. And vice versa, no product marketing person is going to be assigned to negotiate product requirements on very technical products without the ability to communicate persuasively with super-techie designers.
Two real examples will help clarify this concept.
The first example is from a search assignment I worked on many years ago for a COO role for a multi-plant manufacturing company. At the time my candidate was a VP operations for a company in a different industry but using comparable technology. My interview focused on how he grew one plant in Asia with 100 people to a multi-facility operation spanning four countries and 3,000 people over four years. The biggest issues he faced had as much to do with manufacturing and distribution as they did with complex tax and pricing issues and supporting a state-of-the-art product design group.
He was initially rejected for the role because he didn’t have direct industry experience despite the fact that the new company was smaller and less complex. About six weeks after the first interview the company was reluctantly forced to hire him when their first candidate, whom they knew personally, rejected their offer at the last minute. I wasn’t surprised when my candidate was promoted to CEO 18 months later. I actually predicted it based on my team growth focused interview with him.
More recently I recruited a director of accounting from a large media company for a controller role in a smaller company but with a far greater span of responsibility. So when I found a young woman with only six years of experience currently in a director position with a well-known company and with a CPA from a Big 4 accounting firm, I knew I had to contact her right away.
Here’s what I discovered during the interview. In her first year in public accounting she was assigned to work on a few tier-one firms working directly with their senior financial executives. By her second year she was leading an international cross-functional team on addressing a major compliance and reporting issue. As important, she was dealing with the U.S. and international CFOs of two different companies and the senior partner of the CPA firm. When she left public accounting one of the CFOs hired her and she was promoted twice in the next two years. This is how stars are born. How they're discovered is by focusing on the team growth rather than the depth of their technical skills, IQ or generic behaviors.
Unfortunately she didn’t get the job since the CEO wanted someone who was more hands-on. Despite this minor setback, this very talented young woman continues to prosper (I just looked her up on LinkedIn) and now has a major business role with a fast-growing media start-up.
So if you’re on the side of the desk interviewing candidates, spend most of your time digging deep into the person’s team projects and growth over time. Done properly and without bias, you’ll discover everything you need to know to determine if the person should be hired or not.
More importantly, for everyone who wants to accelerate their career growth it’s important to push yourself onto important cross-functional teams. It’s great if you’re naturally assigned to them, however, it might be even better if you volunteer for some, especially those that no one else wants. You never know what you’ll learn and the invaluable stories you’ll be able to share with a recruiter, business leader or hiring manager some day in the future.